Landscapes of Development: Infrastructure and Chinese Investment in the Mekong Region

Dorothy Tang

The Thai-Chinese Rayong Industrial Zone is one of the first official Chinese Overseas Cooperation Zones in Southeast Asia. This model shows how the industrial zone is integrated with regional infrastructure in southeast Thailand. Photo: Dorothy Tang, 2020

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to reinforce transnational trade routes with infrastructure, resource extraction, and economic cooperation across Asia, Europe, and Africa. Since the early 2000s, Chinese Overseas Cooperation Zones have played a major role in solidifying bilateral cooperation and incubating Chinese overseas investment. As a result, there are 182 Chinese-financed zones that have been developed in 52 countries. The Mekong Region is currently an important destination for Chinese investment due to its proximity to China and diasporic connections. However, the geopolitics of the long 20th century has also produced a fractured region with complex bilateral and multilateral interventions, and varied affinities with China. My project is a transnational comparison of two Chinese overseas cooperation zones in Cambodia and Thailand to understand whether Chinese overseas projects have varying outcomes in different host nations, and how power-relations between states inform spatial practices.

Recent scholarship of Chinese overseas investments, especially in infrastructural and industrial development, have largely focused on international relations and economic policies rather than their urban and environmental implications. An infrastructural approach grounds the research in the physical and material realities of the landscape while attending to the multiple scales of politics, economics, and social impacts inside and outside of these zones. By starting with the physical landscape in its regional context, I avoid the common tendency of viewing zones as abstract enclaves, but rather an integral component in economic development and urban change. In addition, it recognizes conflicting geopolitical interests of other international actors and the agency of local communities.

The Landscapes and Infrastructure of Chinese Overseas Corporation Zones

Special Economic Zones (SEZ) are typically discussed as critical components of economic policy and associated with the rise of Asian economies such as Taiwan, South Korea, and China. Despite the many terms used to describes these zones—free-trade zones, export-processing zones, industrial estates, or science parks—they share common characteristics of clearly demarcated boundaries, regulatory exemptions from the rest of the economy, and dedicated infrastructural provision. My project foregrounds the landscapes of Chinese overseas cooperation zones in the Mekong Region to map the concomitant infrastructural development, urbanization processes, and environmental change.

An infrastructural approach foregrounds the material landscape to understand the rationales embedded within. As opposed to conceptualizing SEZs themselves as infrastructure, I approach SEZs through the infrastructures that support it, such as energy, transportation, water, communications, and waste. SEZs are critical spaces of infrastructural convergence, and an analysis of their infrastructural regions yields insight into the political, social, and economic processes at play. Most empirical work in infrastructural studies focus on one type of infrastructural systems, but the SEZ provides an opportunity to study how the technopolitics of multiple types of infrastructure intersect in one site, and the overlooked connections between institutions, communities, and landscapes.

“Landscapes of Development” is informed by the political and material lens of infrastructure studies (Larkin 2013) and the spatial lens of landscape studies (Jackson 1997). The infrastructures of the zone are indicative of the operations on both sides of its boundaries—a reflection of the resource demands from within and an index of the natural systems beyond. Its extended spatial reach displaces human and ecological communities while resettling or cultivating other forms of settlements. The research complements the existing literature on infrastructure through a spatial analysis of these extended spaces of infrastructure, and moves fluidly between conventional scales—from the spaces of the zone itself to the supra-national scale—to examine the politics of scale-making and their spatial outcomes (Brenner 2019). By starting with the physical space of the zone, the project confronts the difficulties of studying “globalization” (Tsing 2005) or a “global China” (Lee 2018) and contributes to the discipline of urban design and planning through studying “ordinary” spaces of industrial development—from prefabricated factory buildings to water supply facilities—rather than exemplary projects or heroic figures.

The Thai-Chinese Rayong Industrial Zone is an incubator for Chinese enterprises in Thailand. This rubber factory is one of the key tenants of the zone. Photo: Dorothy Tang, 2020.

Case Studies: Cambodia & Thailand

One of the overarching questions is to understand the variations of Chinese overseas SEZs in the development trajectories of their hosts countries and the forms of improvisations necessary to adapt to local political structure, property regimes, spatial practices and environmental conditions. A subset of this inquiry relates to how varied geopolitical competition impacts the spatial configuration of SEZs on the ground. If we assume that host countries play an important role in shaping Chinese overseas SEZs, it is necessary for the unit of analysis to expand beyond the physical boundaries of the zone itself to the infrastructural region it is embedded in. This “infrastructural region” is defined by the functional territory that supports the zone, including physical infrastructural systems, policy environments, and social networks.

Given this objective, the case studies selected represent two of the 20 Chinese state-sanctioned zones: Thai-Chinese Rayong Industrial Zone in Thailand and Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone in Cambodia. These two zones are privately managed with capital investment primarily from the Yangtze River Delta and were part of the first wave of competitive bids to China’s Ministry of Finance in 2006. As a state-sanctioned development zone, the zones are eligible for centrally allocated subsidies and low interest loans from China. Both zones are located on the urban peripheries of their host countries and are key nodes for major transportation infrastructure investments such as ports, highways, and rail. In addition, they are in sensitive coastal landscapes, and are susceptible to multiple environmental risks due to climate change. These similarities enable planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and geographers to ask whether national industrial policies contribute to differentiated spatial outcomes.

My research uses the industrial zone as a spatial typology to study the technopolitics between economic development, infrastructure, and space. Three activities—spatial-historic analysis, mapping infrastructural regions, and spatial ethnographies—hybridize spatial analysis with humanistic research methods. It aims to trace the spatial genealogy of the zone, map its infrastructural reach, identify spillover effects, and finally to conclude with policy recommendations.

Brenner, Neil. 2019. New Urban Spaces : Urban Theory and the Scale Question. New York: Oxford University Press

Jackson, J.B. 1997. “The Word Itself.” In Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, edited by Helen Horowitz, 299–306. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (1): 327–43.

Lee, Ching Kwan. 2018. The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa. Kindle Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tsing, Anna. 2005. Friction : An Ethnography of Global Connection. Kindle Edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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